Trends? Movements? Big thoughts on music in 2009? Uhh ... Lots of over-hyped mediocrity. Here are 5 glorious exceptions.
1. "Bitte Orca"(The Dirty Projectors)
2. "Album" (Girls)
The most influential record of the '00s wasn't "Kid A," "The College Dropout," or "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" -- it was a 43-year-old Beach Boys album called "Pet Sounds," whose joyful SoCal pop and orchestral melancholy were to indie rock what garage punk was to alternative and grunge.
Fitting that the Aughts end with two sublime records picking up good vibrations. Nearly every song on "Bitte Orca" ("Please Whale." Whatever.) is its own genre-bending Wilsonian mini-symphony: the anthemic guitars that open "Cannibal Resource" pulling back the curtains on Dave Longstreth's hopscotching vocals, the scat choir building to the sparkling chorus; a gorgeous "Temecula Sunrise" bursting above folksy rural bliss; the tidal wave of aching noise that crashes down on "Useful Chamber," mad desire upending a courtly love poem; "Two Doves," a ballad Amber Coffman coos to sighing violins that might be the prettiest song of the year. Like "Pet Sounds," "Bitte Orca" raises our longings to the heavens, beatifying our ineffable discontent into spiritual offerings, into eclectic hymns, into prayers.
Christopher Owens' music is more terra firma, his needs more direct. "Reach out and touch me, I'm right here!" Owens pleads on "Laura," trying to salvage a friendship from a romance that's run aground. "Album" isn't a break-up record exactly -- it's an aftermath record for people blowing on love's burned-out embers. Owens' desperate Elvis Costello whine isn't enough to win the girl back, so he tries everything from hijacking "Little Duce Coupe" like some "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker" to dressing up in his hipster best and getting high in the "Summertime" sunshine. The astonishing centerpiece "Hellhole Retrace" is a devastating moment of clarity: "I don't wanna die without shaking up a leg or two. I wanna do some dancing too. So come on and dance with me," Owens wails at the echoes of some far off beach party, and when he doesn't get an answer he just keeps wailing away until the "Blue Velvet" soundtrack drifts in with the midnight tide like a calming narcotic fog. When all else fails -- and it does -- Owens still has music to dull the pain: "I found a friend in the song that I'm singing" he sighs on rockabilly closer "Darling." "Pet Sounds" guided our parents through the '60s, and Owens through childhood in the Children of God cult. "Album" and "Bitte Orca" will take it from here.
3. "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" (Phoenix)
Unless you're into that Animal Collective bullshit, there's a good two-in-three chance that your favorite song of 2009 happens in the first seven minutes of Phoenix's infectious electro dance pop rock masterpiece. And unlike "Empire State of Mind," "Lisztomania" and "1901" exist on an album whose deep cuts -- the bouncy regret of "Lasso," "Rome's" epic, marbleized heartbreak -- are every bit as fun and flashy, as catchy and resonant as the hits. Of course, to get to them, you have skip past track two, which I know ain't easy. If America ever does, Phoenix might turn out to be the biggest band of next year too.
4. "Horehound" (The Dead Weather)
Jack White won't get as many "Artist of the Decade" votes as Jay-Z or Kanye, but he's made more great music in the past ten years than hip hop's twin towers combined. If he hadn't, "Horehound's" blood-thirsty blues might have been a bigger deal. I can understand some fatigue given White's prolific ... Actually no, I can't. The White Stripes are awesome. The Raconteurs are awesome. The Dead Weather are awesome. And if White releases his rumored solo album next year, that too will be awesome. Besides, the real star of "Horehound" is its femme fatale, singer Allison Mossheart, who lures White into the shadows with her lusty panting. Once they're face to face the knives come out on dueling duets like "Treat Me Like Your Mother" and "Rocking Horse," the temptress slinking in for the kill, her prey bashing on his drums to keep her at bay, cutting back like a buffalo. From the beginning White has dabbled in the black arts, stacking record after record at Robert Johnson's Crossroads, itching to pick a fight. On "Horehound" the Devil finally comes calling -- all sixty feet of her.
5. "Art Brut vs. Satan" (Art Brut)
Another album-full of random musings and words to live by from Eddie Argos, poet laureate of vulnerable hipsters high on pop, shouted over, around, and under Jasper Future and Ian Catskilkin's manic riffs. You tell me which are which:
"Why is everyone trying to sound like U2? That's not a very cool thing to do."